What If VisiCalc Had Been Patented?

from the innovation dept

Dan Bricklin, the creator of the first spreadsheet program, VisiCalc, has been mentioned in a number of articles recently concerning the issue of software patents, and he’s now speaking up about the basic question of what would have happened if he’d been able to patent VisiCalc. He’s responding to someone who suggests that the lack of a patent on VisiCalc slowed innovation by making everyone just copy VisiCalc. Bricklin responds smartly (of course) by pointing out that this wasn’t true at all. First, plenty of others tried to come up with other, completely different systems to replace spreadsheets — and none caught on. At the same time, Lotus and Microsoft took what Bricklin (and others) did early on and made them even better and more useful for the market. It all goes back to the same thing we’ve spoken about in the past. There’s a big difference between invention and innovation — and it’s the innovation that helps the economy. However, patents protect invention, not innovation. While a lack of patents may have kept some money out of Bricklin’s pockets, it did allow for more focused work on making the spreadsheet better for the market — and in the end that helped the economy much more, by letting competition and the market drive innovation, rather than a government granted monopoly.

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Comments on “What If VisiCalc Had Been Patented?”

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Anonymous Coward says:

No Subject Given

That’s a clear analysis. Invention usually starts a product, then people find new ways to use it, expand on it, extend in unexpected directions. Patents are the roadblock to innovation, not the stimulus, unless you buy the “economic incentive” argument.
I thought it was interesting that other people came up with other competing systems to Visicalc. What could those have been, I wonder?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Tracked down some spreadsheet alternatives.

I tracked down some of those competing systems for myself. From Dan Bricklin’s article:

We even tried one at Software Arts with TK!Solver, and Lotus tried Improv. Then there was T-Maker, Javelin, etc., etc.

TK Solver is still out there. A successor to Improv is Quantrix. You can find a Javelin Software Wikipedia reference, too. Anyone know of a product with self-documentation features similar to the old Javelin DOS product? Did Oracle buy it up to produce something similar later?

Anonymous of Course says:

Re: Re: Tracked down some spreadsheet alternatives.

I still use TK!Solver. I also use Excel and Mathcad but TK has some handy features that none of the others have. Innovation is most often evolutionary rather than revolutionary. Only a person that has never designed stuff would fail to see that. I used to torment a fellow who always wanted a unique design by suggesting every solution that I could imagine… effectively ruling them out. MWUAH HA HA!

Barry Phillips (user link) says:

Re: Re: Tracked down some spreadsheet alternatives.

Over the last seven years we have developed a program to fill the gap between spreadsheets and professional mathematical programs, getting over the main limitations of spreadsheets. Comes into its own where spreadsheet run out of steam.
Already developed a number of models.
Would love to hear from anyone interested in modelling.
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Model the way you work and in a way you know how
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Find logical errors within a model
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Michael Clouser (user link) says:


Good find, Mike.

Innovation is a process within the context of the marketplace. Indeed so much more than simply inventions, true innovation is a continuous interplay between the intellect, the product (or service), and the marketplace.

If we think about it, the current patent system could actually be one of economic disincentive.

-It demotivates other creatives from improving on an existing invention, either through product development or marketplace adaptation.

-The expense of the patent process, in terms of time and money, is especially burdensome to entrepreneurs in the early stage.

-Other expenses such as patent defense line the wallets of lawyers and waste valuable time and money of innovative firms.

-Universities spend their sparse resources on protecting IP, and then more resources marketing it. Entrepreneurs and established innovative firms on the outside often “pass” licensing such inventions since the economics of the deal seem lopsided and favor the university. IP sits on the shelves of universities, and is hidden away for all intensive purposes. TTOs fight with faculty and students over IP rights. Many potential startups that would transfer technology and innovation dry heave at this point and die for the potential founders (academic entrepreneurs or surrogate entrepreneurs) are unwilling to move forward with the economics of the deal that seem tilted towards the university.

Complicated issue, but a lot of fun to discuss.

Ken Dakin says:

Visicalc patentability

Visicalc would not have been patentable because of “prior art” – namely the ‘Works Records sysyem’ developed at ICI around 1974 (five/six years earlier).It had backup/recovery/multiple shared users/security and remote data update all built in to the original specification. It also prevented many illogical operations to take place (eg multiplying inches by inches or kilograms by pounds – think mars lander!).See Wikipedia article “spreadsheet”

ken dakin says:

Re: Visicalc patentability

The spreadsheet article has been “sanitized” by zealous wikpedia editors to remove all references to the earlier “Works Records System” of 1974.

However, a video testimony on YOUTUBE entitled “The history of spreadsheets” tells the story

There are some additional historical technical details on

Ken Dakin says:

Visicalc patentability

Visicalc would not have been patentable because of “prior art” – namely the ‘Works Records sysyem’ developed at ICI around 1974 (five/six years earlier).It had backup/recovery/multiple shared users/security and remote data update all built in to the original specification. It also prevented many illogical operations to take place (eg multiplying inches by inches or kilograms by pounds – think mars lander!).See Wikipedia article “spreadsheet”

Justin Case says:

To Patent or Not To Patent?

Let’s try this:

1. You come up with a great product idea, something completely unique in the marketplace.

2. You start a company and market the product.

3. Big Evil Inc. and several others blatantly copy your ideas and eventually crush you.

Is this fair, a case of “the market sorting itself out”? Or is it an example of why patents are necessary?

Nevermind that patents today are only as good as the lawyers behind them…

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